It’s back to school and, as some regions open up their economies, more people are returning to work full time. Our brains are being expected to get back into the swing of things. Yet for many, our brains remain reluctant to focus for long stretches of time. The effects of stress, disrupted routines, and simply being out-of-practice are showing.
The good news is that our brains are incredibly resilient! Given the right care, we can always improve our focus and critical thinking skills. Try these tips to get the most from your brain:
1. Care for your mental health
It’s no secret that emotions can make our thinking foggy. When we feel strong emotions, the limbic system in the brain takes over. This is actually a response that our bodies do on purpose! Faced with a threat, we need to “think on our feet” which essentially means “stop over-thinking.” As a result, our prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain associated with critical thinking, rational decision making, and mathematical reasoning — shuts down, leaving room for gut reactions and impulsive responses. Even with strong emotions that aren’t fear, such as sadness or love, our limbic brain is entrusted to do what it does best without our rational mind complicating things.
Often when we feel stuck or frozen, it’s because we’re not able to access our prefrontal cortex. We can’t remember people’s names, crunch numbers, or follow multi-step instructions. So before you sit down for your next virtual meeting or math quiz, let your limbic brain know that it’s time to let go, that you are going to be ok. You can do this with 5 minutes of meditation or slow, deep breathing. If you struggle to do this on your own, try a breathing app to guide you.
In general, anything you can do to care for your mental health will improve your brain function both short- and long-term. The next time you tell yourself that you don’t have time for self-care, pause, and flip the script — you do have time, because time spent making yourself calm and happy will make your work time that much more productive. Consider long-term mental health routines such as a weekly walk with a trusted friend, a mindfulness class, or counseling. Remember that you are not alone, that everyone in the world right now is feeling strain on their mental health. It is normal for your emotions to be heightened (or frozen), and you deserve to feel better through whatever care works best for you.
Final note — if you are truly struggling to get out of limbic brain, if you’re just having a day of strong emotions, that’s fine! Let it be what it is, feel what you need to feel. Bottling things up can make your recovery slower. Consider taking on more creative projects on these emotional days. Your limbic system is also the master of motivation and passion, so if a side project suddenly feels exciting, don’t put it off and force yourself to do the more rational work. Listen to what your brain is telling you and run with it!
2. Tweak your environment
Even once your inner world is calmer, if your physical environment is unhelpfully chaotic, it will be tougher to focus. This is different for each person, so look inward. Are you someone who thrives in a little mess or feels distracted unless the office is 100% in order? Do you crave silence and solitude or the bustling collaboration of a busy workspace? Think about the times you were most productive and what the environment was like. You can also use your environment to bring out the part of your brain you hope to access. Looking for inspiration and creativity? Try printing out examples of projects, images, or sayings that get you feeling excited. Need a little extra support getting your prefrontal cortex in line? Try listening to calming music while you work, or get outside to work surrounded by nature.
Note: in this climate of COVID-19, feeling safe in our work or school environment is not a given. Feeling confident in your gear — mask, hand sanitizer, perhaps with a face shield or air purifier — will further allow your brain to relax and get down to business.
3. Learning style
As we explored in our neurodiversity series, every brain is different! Take some time to get to know your brain’s style. Do you understand things best when they’re described in words or pictures? Or do you need to work through it yourself, using your hands? Does being around people motivate you or distract and exhaust you? Think about timing and routine. Maybe you thrive when you have no schedule and can get to things when inspiration strikes. Or maybe you need a set schedule with 15 minute breaks for movement or snacks every hour. Use this information to inform how, when, and where you work.
Be aware that your ideal learning style can change! You may typically be an auditory learner, but today, on this one project, you really need a visual. Or you’ve been sitting around all day and need some kinesthetic hands-on time. Listen to your brain and do your best to adapt.
4. Embrace failure, ask questions!
One of the greatest barriers facing our brains is the fear of failure. This fear is the result of growing up saturated in problematic messaging, that a “correct” answer memorized from a textbook is more acceptable than a creative answer or one that thinks critically about all factors involved. The real world is too nuanced for only one correct solution. Creative, inspired, and impactful work happens best when all perspectives are acceptable, and when multiple avenues are allowed to be explored — even if they might not work out. Innovative companies know this, which is why they celebrate failure, even throwing “idea funerals” in which the whole team celebrates good ideas that just didn’t pan out. Who knows — in a different situation, maybe the same idea will take off!
When you are not afraid of failure, your brain can function at a much higher level! Not only are both your limbic brain and prefrontal-cortex working in harmony, but you also don’t limit yourself to the ideas that seem less risky. And the wonderful reality is that failure makes us better at whatever we strive to do! It can teach us lessons that we would never have learned from a success. It also opens us up to ask more questions. If I’m afraid of being wrong or looking stupid, I am less likely to ask a teacher, mentor, or boss for help. Whether you are stuck, unsure, confused, or simply curious, questions are a fantastic way to learn, make connections, and help your brain grow! And let’s face it, if you have a question, odds are someone else could benefit from it being asked. They may even have the same question, but are just too afraid to ask.
So the next project you work on, take risks, ask questions along the way, and when it fails, investigate why. What could you do next time to improve your thinking?
5. Care for your body
We have a habit of sacrificing our body’s needs for the sake of our mind’s work. We pull all-nighters, we skip meals, we stay seated at a cramped desk for hours on end. Our minds have not evolved to function like this. If you really want to maximize your brain’s potential, you need to also nurture your body. Eat well, keeping a balance of carbs, fat and protein, and cut back on refined sugars that cause your energy and mind to crash. Studies have found that judges make harsher decisions the hungrier they get. You are no exception! Limit consumption of alcohol and other substances that kill off brain cells. Structure in enough time for sleep, including a wind-down period for an hour before you go to bed, so that your brain has a chance to turn off. Make sure to unplug from devices at times throughout the day as well. And perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to move! Our brains need oxygen, which means we need our blood to flow freely. Sitting all day can make our blood pool. Not only is this a health risk, it will also make our thinking sluggish. Schedule in regular exercise time and consider taking a movement break every hour to get the blood flowing again.
As someone with chronic illnesses, I had to learn that my body needs different care than others. For example, sitting at a desk felt awful. I pushed myself to conform to this workplace norm, until a doctor explained why it was so challenging. I have POTS, a condition that makes it especially difficult for blood to reach my brain while sitting in chairs. I would feel dizzy, short of breath, and so foggy I couldn’t focus on anything. Simply reclining with my feet up or laying on a couch fixed these issues! My blood sugar crashes can be quickly fixed with a snack, and my EDS-caused pain can be minimized with movement breaks and pillows. Whatever your individual needs may be, remember to listen to your body when it speaks up!
Working (and schooling) from home certainly has its challenges, and the amount of time we spend on computers these days is likely not helpful for any of our brains. But perhaps we can use this time to think about our environments and personal styles; perhaps we can use any additional control over our workday to fine-tune a structure and space that works best for us; so that when we come back to the new normal, we can keep these adjustments to optimize our brains and overall well-being!